First Person vs. Third Person Point of View: It's About Perspective
Learn about first and third-person points of view, and the benefits and drawbacks of each.
Who tells your story is a defining characteristic of your book. The narrator’s perspective is the lens through which your readers understand the world the characters live in.
Think of how Charlotte Brontë used first person perspective in Jane Eyre to influence how readers felt about each character as they moved through the story. J. K. Rowling used third person limited in the Harry Potter series, which has been loved by millions.
Trying to decide which point of view is best for your book or short story isn’t always easy to figure out. Unfortunately, there isn’t a checklist or pop quiz you can take to find the right answer. However, there are a few determining factors that can help you choose between the options.
Point of View – It’s About Perspective
Point of View, often referred to as POV, is a literary term used to describe the person who tells the story in creative writing. The Narrator who influences how your readers interact with your book.
There are three most commonly used points of view are:
Third Person Limited
Third Person Omniscient
Point of view determines the extent of the details, or how the details are relayed to the reader. Think of it like the lens of a camera. First person point of view is the most restrictive, a close up, tightly focused, typically from one person’s thoughts. In contrast, a third person narrator point of view is the most inclusive, a wide angle, able to see details in panorama. There is such a thing as a Second Person point of view, but it’s rarely used. This article will focus on the two biggies: first-person and third-person narration.
First Person POV – Think It
Popular with Romance, Young Adult and Action/Adventure stories.
Telling your story from inside the mind of one character builds a rapport with readers. The tale is relayed through the main character’s thoughts within the story itself, making it a shared, intimate, and personal experience. In essence, the reader becomes the character. It’s like tapping into someone’s psyche.
In addition, it feels natural. We all speak in the first person in real life. This is why it is also popular with non-fiction stories, such as autobiographies.
First person writing is recognizable by the use of “I” related pronouns. Often the story is told from the protagonist or main character’s point of view. However, it is possible to tell the story from any character’s perspective. Moby Dick could be just as compelling from Ahab or Starbucks perspective.
Shortcut to First-Person Pronouns:
I, me, my
our, myself, ourselves
“Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Readers live or relive the story through an expert source, someone who was on the scene, confident that this person knows what they are talking about and will give them the facts they need to know.
Typically, the prose is character driven. The tone and style of the story, how it's told, and what information is divulged is determined by the narrator. The reader gets their world view, motivations, and vices. Plot points reveal new aspects of the personality of the narrator, and the prose itself is created by the character’s unique attributes. Because the tale of floating down the river on a raft in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is told from Huck’s POV, the reader experiences a unique time in childhood, a distinct era, and gets a personal perspective on the locations shaping the story.
Types of First Person Point of View
The main character. Most often, the story is disclosed from the view of the protagonist. Our hero or heroine recounts the events directly to the reader. Everything in the book is happening or has happened to them. Readers are subject to the observations, opinions and thoughts of the main character.
A peripheral narrator. You may want readers to learn about your main character through someone else’s eyes. The story is still recounted directly to the reader, but it includes observations, opinions and thoughts about the main character or characters from the narrator’s subjective perspective. This type of narrator leaves the door open for bias and misinterpretation. After all, the reader is being told the story from someone in the fiction, but not who the narrative is about.
Past tense. Telling your story to the reader in the past tense allows the narrator to reflect on their former selves. In addition, you can foreshadow what is to come, because the character has lived through the story and so knows the future already.
Present Tense. Having the events of the story happen in the moment, as they are taking place, creates immediacy and drives action. There’s less reflection and more reaction and stream-of-consciousness. This is how we experience life, so the level of intimacy between character and reader is heightened.
Benefits of First Person
Puts the reader into the narrator’s head. First person gives readers a personal account of the character’s thoughts, emotions and worldview. There is a strong connection between the reader and the character. You’re in their head, direct and personal.
Harper Lee told the story of race in the American south of the 1930s through the eyes of a six-year-old Scout in To Kill a Mocking Bird. With this choice, the author had the freedom to openly discuss the disparity between cultures through the narrative voice of an inquisitive child.
Potential for unreliability. Since your character is telling the story, they might be an unreliable narrator, lying to the reader, hiding details, and misrepresenting situations as they deem fit. This tactic can add another layer of complexity to a story, and leave readers guessing what’s really going on, if a narrator is holding back.
An example of this is Nick in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby. He’s enamored with Jay Gatsby, seeing him a symbol of hope. This affects Nick’s opinions of the other characters and colors his interpretation of the events of the book.
Drawbacks of First Person
Limited experience. Readers can only experience the story through the world of the narrator. You are limited to describing things they can see, hear, taste, touch, etc. A good example of how this can be limiting is describing a storyteller’s physical characteristics. Do you think about your delicious brown locks when you brush your hair? The twinkle in your eye as you have an eureka moment? Neither will your narrator. Writers need to find other ways to show these details.
In Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, there are no mirrors in the orphanage or Thornfield Hall. (Mirrors are a common and overused ploy when writing from the first-person perspective to describe the narrator's appearance.) As such, readers gain minimal insight into how Jane has physically changed as she ages. They have to rely on Mr. Rochester for these details.
In addition, first-person storytelling is usually limited to one or maybe two perspectives in a book. Multiple characters, if done well, have the potential for a layered detailed story. However, being in the head of a cast of characters can be bewildering to readers at such an intimate level. It might be hard to settle into the story if personalities keep changing. Afterall, the point of first-person is to experience the world through someone else.
Awareness. As a writer, you need to be careful of the facts that are only known to your character. You’ll need to constantly ask yourself, does my character know this information or detail? If you give them too much knowledge, they won’t be believable to the reader. Also, readers might struggle with key plot points.
Ahab may have been the protagonist of Moby Dick, but the author chose to tell the story from Ishmael’s perspective. Most likely because he is the sole survivor of the disaster and without Ishmael witnessing the battle between Ahab and Moby Dick, readers wouldn’t know how the story ends.
Readers judging your character. If your character’s voice and personality aren’t likable, people might not read on. If they are whiny, over-the-top, cocky or any of the other fun traits we like to give our characters to base them in reality, it might override the story and put readers off.
On the flip side, if the character is too passive, only watching, not participating in the narrative, readers won’t connect. Imagine if To Kill a Mockingbird was told from Atticus Finch’s perspective instead of the more innocent Scout.
Other Examples of First Person Narrative
Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Killing Floor by Lee Child
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
First Person Point of View Writing Tips:
Avoid using “I saw”, “I felt” or “I heard” – these are the most commonly overused terms in beginner first person books. These tags are unnecessary, and cumbersome to read. Try to omit as many dialogue tags or thought tags as possible, with the goal of letting the writing show who it is that is doing the talking.
While you want to be in the character’s head, you don’t want to spend all your time there. Be aware of extended periods of inner monologue and refrain from using italics to show inner thoughts. Readers are already aware they are reading your character’s thoughts.
Include all the senses, not just thoughts and emotions. Ground your character’s observations in the world by including sights, sounds, smells and tastes where it makes sense to enhance the reader’s experience.
Third Person POV – Describe it
Popular with Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery stories.
Instead of being inside the mind of the character, the story is told by an external narrator. The speaker is a storyteller or observer who knows more about what’s going on than the players in the novel. With this point of view, the author has the ability to zoom in on an individual personality or pull back and tell the story from a wide angle.
It’s likely most of the first stories you read as a child were told to you in third person. It’s also a standard in research papers and academic writing. The earliest stories from the likes of Homer use this perspective to relay tales. Readers are immediately placed into the action, the story, able to hit the ground running.
Short Cut to Third Person Pronouns:
She, her, hers
He, him, his
They, them, their, theirs
But he wished he hadn’t said anything. If there was one thing the Dursleys hated even more than his asking questions, it was his talking about anything acting in a way it shouldn’t, no matter if it was
in a dream or even a cartoon — they seemed to think he might get dangerous ideas.
—J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone.
It’s still essential to define traits for each player in the tale. Just like first person, each character needs their own style, language, nicknames etc. Think about what makes each distinct. What are their priorities? How do they compliment or clash with the others? Clarify each character’s unique skills and talents to help determine which parts of the story should be told from which character’s perspectives.
The infamous “show don’t tell'' becomes of great significance in third-person narratives. Engage readers by describing the events rather than listing them. Because authors tend to write more about what is happening, it is easy to slip into a summarization of events. Engage readers with vivid descriptions and emotions.
Typically, the prose is event driven, with a focus on the journey, the solution to the problem, discovering who did it and why.
Types of Third Person Point of View
Third person omniscient. Omniscient means all knowing. An omniscient narrator knows everything about all of the characters, as well as things about the world none of the characters could possibly know. Using this type of third-person narrative allows you to move freely between different characters' perspectives, through space and time and basically go where no man has gone before. There are no limits. Third person omniscient point of view is not common in modern commercial fiction, but was a staple of the Dragonlance fantasy novels of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Third person limited. Sometimes referred to as close third, the narrator of this type of story sticks primarily to a single character. This can be for the entire book or can switch between different characters in different chapters or scenes. Here, the reader’s perspective is limited to what information the character knows. It’s a useful POV for staying close in on a character, while still having a wider lens on the world around them, and feels more personal than an omniscient POV. This is a great way to build interest or heighten suspense.
Third person objective. Here, the narrator is a neutral party, and the story is presented in an observational tone. Imagine sitting on a train and listening to the conversation between a married couple in the seat behind you. This perspective has your reader experiencing the story as a voyeur. Be careful here to stay out of the character’s head. The narrator is a complete outsider and unable to know what any player in the novel is thinking.
Benefits of Third Person
Limitless possibilities. Readers can easily grasp the big picture because your story isn’t defined by one character’s beliefs and emotions. In addition, your main character can still see, hear, taste, touch etc. but so can other characters. With a little distance, it can be easier to bring the main characters to life without revealing details you may want to delay the reader knowing.
The third-person perspective is harmonious with storytelling from multiple characters across space and time. A cast of players can weave together the story, pull out plotlines and move in and out of the narrative as the story needs to be told.
In George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, there are over 30 different POV characters weaving together the story … so far. By not being in Tyrion’s head, readers are able to judge his actions before more information is revealed, meaning assumptions are made and then slashed as he is revealed across the books.
Show and tell. By showcasing several different points of view, the reader can clearly see the difference between a character’s opinions and the facts. Readers get more information and see more places than any one character alone would be able to access.
A richer experience. Itching to describe the planet your character lands on, the bar they walk into, or the look on their face when they try kiwi for the first time? Third person expands the way the story is told, opening the door to more detailed viewpoints, explanations and language choices.
Any book in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings series might be only half as much fun if the author had stuck to Frodo’s experience. In fact, Tolkien has so much to say there are extended scenes, footnotes and even an entire family of Elvish languages.
Last person standing. One fun advantage of third person is the potential for tension as there is no guarantee any characters will live to the end of the book.
Drawbacks of Third Person
Arm’s length. In third person writing, the narration is out of the head of the character and on to the page. The story is being told to the reader, not with the reader. As a result, the reader is by nature somewhat disconnected and that can hamper their ability to establish empathy with your characters.
Agatha Christie’s classic mysteries, like Murder on the Orient Express, always feature the cunning and sly Hercule Poirot. Because the stories are told in third person, readers never really get to see his thought process as he deduces who, among all the suspects, is the real killer until the final gripping scene.
More characters, more problems. As with first person, if a reader doesn’t like a character, they may drop out of the story. Without that personal connection, without being in their head, it may be harder for a reader to empathize with any of the characters.
Back to Game of Thrones. Did readers need all those perspectives? Some say you bet, give me the details. Others got confused and put the books down.
Just the facts. It’s harder to have an unreliable narrative as now it is not the character misleading the reader, but the storyteller.
An exception to this is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. By limiting the story to only Elizabeth’s point of view, readers are, well, prejudicial against Mr. Darcy.
Other Examples of Third Person Narrative
The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
Normal People by Sally Rooney
The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
Third Person Point of View Writing Tips
Limit the use of “he noticed”, “he saw”, and “he thought” as these filter words drag down the story and add another layer or barrier between the reader and the character. Avoid starting sentences with passive voice identified by “ing” words as they distance the reader from the action. For example: Change “Calling to her father, she noticed the body on the floor” to “She called to her father before she noticed the body on the floor.”
Avoid head-hopping. If you’re writing third-person limited, remember to stick with one character and their thoughts per scene. Readers will be confused if one minute our hero is questioning his readiness to go fight the dragon, and the next moment readers are in the head of his friend, hearing his thoughts on how he’ll spend his share of the dragon’s gold. This transition confuses the reader.
A Note on the Importance of a Consistent Point of View
Some authors have switched up their point of view perspectives within a book or series to great success. Think The Thursday Murders Club by Richard Osman. There are four characters, three of which narrate in third person and one in first person, using journal entries as the format. Osman makes it work, but it is a tricky business.
Switching between the two has its drawbacks. One, it’s an editing nightmare. All those tenses! And two, it might confuse your readers. Confused readers don’t give books good reviews. Or they completely DNF them.
It’s About The Story
Ultimately, point of view is about choice. It’s an important decision to make before you start sitting down to write your own story. However, you are not committed to one point of view for the rest of your writing life. While a series should probably stay in one consistent point of view, many writers use both types of writing, depending on how the story needs to be told. Consider what POV is most comfortable for you to write, what makes the most sense for your genre, and choose from there.